Gilbert does not know how to pay for a single new police officer in the next five years, a time when the town will need 60 new cops to keep pace with growth.
The police department and Town Council agree they must find money to hire new officers, but they don't know where the money will come from when they face large budget cuts.
The town already has the thinnest police coverage in the East Valley, and elected leaders said going five years without more officers would threaten public safety.
"That's just unacceptable," said Councilman Don Skousen. "We're going to have to increase it one way or another."
The town has about one officer per 1,000 residents, which Police Chief John Brewer said is probably the lowest acceptable ratio for Gilbert. That is lower than any other East Valley community and one of the reasons for an average response time of 8.4 minutes.
"It's too long," Brewer said. "We would like to get it to four minutes or better."
The thin staffing has cut into community policing efforts, Brewer said. National guidelines recommend patrol officers leave 30 percent of their time unscheduled to deal with preventive measures or to respond to specific problems. But an audit done several years ago found Gilbert officers had 14 percent of their time unscheduled.
Gilbert should have 1.3 officers per 1,000 residents for optimal coverage, Brewer said.
The town grows by 12,000 residents a year, which requires 12 new officers a year to keep pace. That costs $1.2 million a year — each new officer costs $100,000. That drops to $60,000 in the second year.
Meanwhile, the town is struggling to trim $2 million to balance next year's budget, and financial forecasts predict following years could bring tough times as well.
Gilbert leaders said they don't know how to pay for the new officers while slashing expenses.
"A tax increase will not be discussed but we will look at other options," said Councilman Dave Crozier, one of several elected officials who oppose new taxes. But Skousen said the town may have no other option. The former police officer said the town should consider a sales tax hike if it can't identity other sources.
"An eight-minute response time is not acceptable," he said.